August 20, 2019

The Man with the Merciful Gaze- Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier (2012). Photo by Kotukaran, cropped by Gabriel Sozzi.
Used under CC 3.0

The death of Jean Vanier in May this year at the age of ninety brought to a close the earthly life of a hero of the Spirit, champion of the poor, and prophet for the disabled.

As people of Mercy it is timely for us to reflect on what we can learn from this remarkable man. How did he reveal the Merciful God? What did he teach us about being human?

Most of us are probably familiar with the basics of his story and have read some of his 30 books on community and spirituality. L’Arche, the Ark, is an organisation that from its humble beginnings in 1964 has grown to 150 communities in 38 countries. In addition to the residential communities that constitute L’Arche, Vanier also co-founded a movement known as Faith and Light, which is an international support network for parents, family and friends of the intellectually disabled.

It all began when Jean, a Canadian from a privileged background, brought up to speak French and English, was led to invite two intellectually disabled men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave their institutional setting and set up house with him in a small village in northern France. This was the end of a long journey of Jean’s desire to follow the Spirit; it was also the beginning of an even more fascinating journey! He describes it like this: “It is a way that is very simple and very healing; a way that leads us into the love of Jesus…through a covenant of love with the poor, the weak and the oppressed.”

These are the facts, but they do not convey the beauty and wonder that is the legacy of Jean Vanier. It was his disposition, his way of being, and the now firm tradition of L’Arche, that is the truly prophetic reality. His insights can remind us all of the deep truths so easily obscured in this complex modern world:

  • Everyone shares the love of God

This may sound trite, or a truth so obvious it goes without saying; but the fact is that sometimes what goes without saying is forgotten or compromised. It is still within living memory that Hitler, in amongst all the other horrors, implemented a campaign of death for intellectually disabled people. The Third Reich government propaganda decried them as “life unworthy of life” and as “useless eaters.” Jean Vanier and L’Arche stand as the antithesis of this, affirming that everyone, every single person, shares the Spirit and is created in the image of God. Every person.

  • Jesus is the Heart

Jean Vanier’s vision is essentially Christocentric- Jesus is at the heart of everything: the wounded Jesus, the healing Jesus, the Jesus who washes his friends’ feet, the suffering Jesus, the risen Jesus. The life of each person and perhaps particularly those wounded from birth with disability, is a potent expression of the Paschal Mystery. Like John the Baptist, Jean Vanier was always conscious that he was the messenger not the message. Jesus is the message and the Beatitudes the guide.  

  • True Beauty

One of Jean Vanier’s favourite sayings was that “everyone is beautiful.”  He challenges us to look beyond the cosmetic or superficial, the societal notions of beauty, to a radical aesthetic that recognises the intrinsic beauty of each person. He encourages us to gaze at the soul. This was a lesson taught to me by an intellectually disabled woman called appropriately, Innocenza, who despite, or perhaps because of, her repugnant physical appearance embodied beauty in many ways. I was standing on a street with her once when a bus load of tourists passed by gawking at her and taking photos. I was angry, but she, ever gracious, smiled at them. She was a gentle and joyful person. The poem Grace Notes celebrates her

  • Every person contributes

Flowing on from these convictions is the L’Arche tenet that every member contributes to the Christian community. This is a truth we need to rest with, not just rush past. We need to use this belief to evaluate our own communities. Do we really believe that the frail, the aged, the demented, the incompetent, are fully and unequivocally contributing to our community? Do we bother to include them? Do we subtly exclude them? Does our own fear, embarrassment or lack of acceptance and understanding limit such people in our own local situations? One of the key words there of course, is what it means to “contribute”. Do we acknowledge that the person with dementia, the intellectually disabled, the comatose figure in the bed, is in Christian terms as useful and creative and full of mystical purpose as the person with the top job or the ones who lead “normal” and “productive” lives? How do we come to an acceptance and understanding of that? For Jean Vanier the answer lies in the spiritual understanding of the community as the Body of Christ.

  • Service provider and community

The organisation known as L’Arche sets a high expectation for itself. It regards itself as both a service provider and a community. That is, its function is to provide appropriate care, safety, shelter and nourishment for its vulnerable residents, but it also aims to provide a home, a haven and a sense of genuine belonging by creating the affective bonds of a true community. Again, it is interesting to ask ourselves where and why we describe our own places of ministry and living in this regard. L’Arche shows it is possible to be both. It may be a complex, chaotic and challenging reality, but it is possible. What can we learn from L’Arche about striking the balance?

  • The giving and receiving

Perhaps one of Jean Vanier’s greatest insights in regard to the process of community at L’Arche is the mutuality of care and mercy. He set out to help and free two intellectually disabled men. But he soon discovered a paradox- describing his first companions as “teachers of tenderness” who unexpectedly led him, taught him, a great deal about pain and healing, care and hope. Genuine care, genuine mercy, is always a mutual blessing.

  • Friendship is the key

In the world of L’Arche all are valued as members of the community, and while people have different jobs and responsibilities, there is none of the artificial demarcation of roles into carer and cared for, helper and helped. In one of his later books, Signs, Jean Vanier writes: “An encounter is not an exercise in power. Nor is it a demonstration of generosity through which we seek to “do good to” the other. It demands real humility and deep vulnerability. To be present to the other, to listen to and regard him or her with respect and attention, allows us to receive in our turn. This is a communion of hearts, a reciprocal gift, freely given.”  Elsewhere he describes the deep desire that wounded and vulnerable people have for genuine friendship, a meeting of equals. Vulnerable people need care and provision of basic services, yes, but they also yearn deeply for someone to take them seriously and engage in faithful friendship with them.

  • The Orange Peel Factor

One of the lighter moments at Jean Vanier’s Requiem Mass was part of the presentation of symbols. A large bowl of oranges was brought forward, and the congregation began to giggle. Then the person carrying the bowl took some peel from it and started to throw it into the assembly. Everyone laughed. The presiding Bishop received the bowl and took some peel and threw it. Everyone laughed. This strange liturgical act is explained in one of Jean Vanier’s books, Community and Growth. He describes the importance of enabling non-verbal people, people imprisoned in their own minds and bodies, to express joy and humour and mischievousness. Meal times at L’Arche are very important and sometimes at the end of a celebration meal, this ritual of throwing the orange peel erupts. It begs the question for many of us of how we enable joy and the expression of exhilaration in the wounded, how we coax confidence and ease from the vulnerable, and how our own communities enact the joy of being together. I am not suggesting that we all start hurling orange peel at one another, although it could be an interesting experiment! 

  • The Mess of Life

Jean Vanier writes often of the woundedness of disabled people; the psychic scars born of years of rejection, shame and humiliation, of the guilt they carry from being labelled different and feeling inferior. Damage can manifest itself in violence and anger, in lack of trust and in compulsive behaviours. Ironically Jean Vanier also observes that life in a L’Arche community habitually brings to light the concealed wounds of those who have come to be assistants. Life is messy, the planet is in a mess, the Church of today likewise. The wounded people we encounter may be survivors of abuse or domestic violence, casualties of war or accidents, the mentally ill or embittered. Do we listen? Do we dare see beyond the mess they project? Do we risk friendship? How do we continue to believe in hope and healing? How do we ourselves embody hope and healing?

 Jean Vanier writes in Signs that we have been brought to “the threshold of a great Mystery. We can’t deny that today our lives and those of our societies are shot through with absurdity. But when love passes through absurdity, it has the power to transform it into presence. And in this presence we can live. Abide in my love, says Jesus. Abide with Jesus as he washes the feet of the poor. This is the path he shows us, for the feet of the poor are also the feet of Jesus…”

Jean Vanier, hero of our times. Humanitarian and holy man of God.

Messages to: Mary Wickham rsm 

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